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Inquiry slams quarantine over horse flu outbreak

By online parliamentary correspondent Emma Rodgers

Posted June 12, 2008 14:00:00
Updated June 12, 2008 15:17:00

The Callinan report has made 38 recommendations for improvement.

The Callinan report has made 38 recommendations for improvement. (Getty Images: Amos Aikman)

Australia's quarantine systems have been described as inefficient, underfunded and lacking diligence in a damning report into last year's equine influenza outbreak.

The report, by former High Court judge Ian Callinan, has been released by Agriculture Minister Tony Burke and has made 38 recommendations for improvement, all of which the Government has pledged to implement.

Mr Burke has called for massive change to be implemented throughout quarantine systems and describes the inquiry as a scathing assessment.

"If you ever wanted to find a reason for driving cultural change in our quarantining services, it's this," he said.

Department executive director of quarantine, Stephen Hunter, has also stood down from his position in the wake of the inquiry findings.

"His decision to stand aside as director of quarantine helps pave the way to drive cultural change through change at the top," Mr Burke said.

The inquiry, which has been tabled by Mr Burke, held 44 days of hearings, saw 250 witnesses and accepted 80,000 documents.

Cause and effect

Commissioner Callinan's report identifies several factors which he says played a part in the outbreak and spread of the disease including systemic failures, understaffing, lack of communication and incompetence and distraction by unproductive and bureaucratic processes.

"What I describe bespeaks an organisation that lacked clear lines of communication between those responsible for formulating procedures and work instructions and those responsible for implementing them," Commissioner Callinan said.

However, the report does not make a precise finding on how equine influenza made its way into the country and spread but says the most likely way was through people or equipment leaving Sydney Eastern Creek quarantine station.

It has also identified horses imported from Japan as a possible source.

Mr Burke says the Government is working its way through every recommendation and implementing those it can immediately in an attempt to restore public confidence in quarantine and biosecurity systems.

The Government has also appointed Professor Peter Shergold to oversee the implementation of the recommendations of the report for the next two years. Professor Shergold has been asked to report back to the Government on a regular basis.

Equine influenza broke out in Sydney last August and quickly spread across New South Wales and Queensland, causing the cancellation of the Sydney Spring Carnival and Queensland Summer Carnival, with racing shut down for three months.

Legal action

Horse industry groups say legal action could now be launched against the Federal Government.

Queensland Thoroughbred Breeders Association president Bob Frappell has told ABC Radio's World Today program the association has already voted in favour of a class action.

"We want to be very careful that we don't put in an ambit, ridiculous claim that's got no credibility," he said.

"That's the main thing, when we go to this Government and say we need some help, we're serious - we mean what we say and [we'll have] a chance of getting it.

"If there's any fairness in the procedure I don't think we'll have to push the Government very hard."

The Australian Racing Board says Commissioner Callinan has provided a blueprint for a quarantine system which should ensure that such an outbreak can never happen again.

Chief executive Andrew Harding says the question of compensation should now be closely examined.

"We knew this wasn't an act of God. It was a product of gross ineptitude and many thousands of blameless people have suffered as a consequence," he said.

"I understand therefore the question of compensation, but plainly it's a complicated one, requiring a sober analysis of the full reports, and that's what we intend to do."

Tags: government-and-politics, federal-government, rural, quarantine, veterinary-medicine, animal-diseases-and-disorders-equine-influenza, australia, act, nsw, eastern-creek-2766, sydney-2000